Steelers' Polamalu never out of position _ mostly because he doesn't have one

Updated: January 19, 2006, 8:52 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's arm-waving, finger-pointing and nonstop gesturing at the line of scrimmage seemed especially frantic against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and for good reason.

After all, what quarterback could possibly be prepared for the sight of a 5-foot-11 defensive back, especially one whose chaotic yet passionate play and free-flowing hair have earned him the nickname of the Tasmanian Devil, lined up at nose tackle?

That's right, nose tackle.

Troy Polamalu, an All-Pro defender who hits like a miniature-sized linebacker but can drop into deep pass coverage, presents the most problematic matchup for the Denver Broncos in Sunday's AFC championship game, just as it did for the Bengals and Colts before them.

How do they prepare for a one-of-a-kind defender -- a man who is never out of position because he doesn't really have one? A player so disruptive that coach Bill Cowher compared drafting him in 2003 to a child opening a special package on Christmas -- he didn't know for sure what he was getting, but he knew it would be good.

"It was like getting a new toy," Cowher said. "You start putting him everywhere and anywhere."

Polamalu, a Pro Bowl player in each of his two seasons as a starter, didn't have any of the Steelers' five sacks of Manning in Indianapolis yet was one of the players most responsible for the 21-18 upset that sent them to Denver -- even though his fourth-quarter interception was wrongly overturned after a replay.

The Steelers used Polamalu in so many ways -- bringing him off the edge as a rush linebacker, slipping him into pass protection or blitzing him up the middle -- that Manning could be seen looking for him on nearly every play. The blitzes so disrupted Manning that he complained afterward about his lack of protection.

"He's a very rare athlete," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "A lot of what we do is because of what he lets us do."

Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Polamalu's roommate at Southern Cal, goes a step further and calls him "the best defensive player in the league." Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "If you don't know where he is, he'll get you."

The Steelers will try to put the same kind of pressure on Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer that they did on Manning, and maybe even more so, because they don't fear Plummer's ability to beat them downfield as they did Manning's. Plummer played a so-so game in Denver's 27-13 decision over New England -- he was 15-of-26 for 197 yards with one touchdown and an interception -- and may have to play better if the Broncos are to avoid becoming Pittsburgh's latest upset victim.

Plummer has seen enough of Polamalu watching video tape this week.

"He's running around, flying around, just doing some crazy stuff and making plays," Plummer said. "You have to see where he is and someone has to account for him because he can cause you trouble."

Sometimes, the Steelers will hide Polamalu behind a blitzing linebacker and ask him to find any seam in the offensive line and shoot through it. They also will line up with only two down linemen but five linebackers, three of whom will stack one side of the line of scrimmage so there aren't enough linemen to block all of them. Then, Polamalu can be found most anywhere.

"He's unbelievable," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "They do a great job with their scheme-making, making it very difficult to figure out where he is, but the rest is him making plays. There are not many plays where he is not involved, and you can't say that about many people in the National Football League."

While Polamalu seems to play with reckless abandon, his coaches say he is very much under control. LeBeau said Polamalu probably studies more film than anyone. And, a season ago, Polamalu made up a DVD of other NFL safeties so he could compare their techniques.

It is off the field where Polamalu's personality does not remotely reflect his on-field image of being a wide-eyed, modern-day version of Jack Lambert -- albeit with all his teeth. He dresses much like the college student he was only three years ago and hasn't cut his hair since then, to honor his Samoan heritage. His teammates still talk about how he showed up at training camp as a rookie driving a $12,000 Kia.

He also doesn't socialize much with his teammates, preferring to stay at home with his wife, Theodora, the sister of Miami Dolphins tight end Alex Holmes, another former Southern Cal player. His speaking voice is barely above a whisper, a rarity in a sport where trash talking is a requisite way of life. And for a player who speeds along with what Shanahan calls "the highest motor I have ever seen," Polamalu's off-field interests include flower-growing and playing the piano.

Polamalu and Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey are regarded by some NFL coaches as the two best defensive backs in the league, and whichever player can be more influential may determine the winner.

"When we are moving around, disguising and showing different looks are the times we're successful," Polamalu said. "I just feel blessed that I've been put here with coach LeBeau and they allow me to do the things I do."


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

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